Real time philosophy on the meaning of love and the utility of expressing it

Principal author:
John L. Clark


After the meetings of this past weekend, my perception of at least two friends has deepened and become richer. Much of our connection was around experiences of love and expressions of affection, and what these mean for us. They also tie in to our vision for living in intentional community. I think I can see my practice of empathy (with the support of NVC) paying dividends, and oh, does that ever make me happy.

After the meetings of this past weekend, my perception of several friends has deepened and become richer, as if they were perceived previously only behind glass—distant and sapped of dimension and perspective—and now take on more shape and reality in the world. The reality is softer, less abrupt, and more connected. Much of our connection was around experiences of love and expressions of affection, and what these mean for us. They also tie in to our vision for living in intentional community. Combined with other meetings that have happened only slightly less recently, I feel a lot of gratitude for these opportunities to share feelings and to be seen for what I value. I think I can see my practice of empathy (with the support of NVC) paying dividends, and oh, does that ever make me happy.

I have been attending the planning meetings for a new intentional community in the northeast Ohio area, which we are currently calling the Western Reserve Ecovillage, and we held our latest meeting Sunday night. I was glad that people enjoyed the potatoes I made (with help from Dan, and the Internet) and I was enjoying the company of people interested in radical social restructuring, but I have been uneasy about ongoing disconnection between me and the others in our group around our mission statement, so I didn't participate much in the main body of the meeting. After the meeting had formally ended, and everyone else who needed to leave had left, I stayed on to enjoy the easy comfort of the space and to help with some cleanup. I got to groove a bit while doing dishes, and Martha shared her joy and allowed me to cuddle with one of the 10-day-old and one of the 5-day-old baby bunnies after she had brought food and water to all of her rabbits. So adorable!

I was surprised and pleased that after finishing these chores Martha brought up the topic of our disagreement around our mission statement. For me, one of the key points that she raised, as she put it, was the perception she had from my mission statement—in particular, language that I want to include about working to heal trauma—that our community would emphasize group hugs and sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya. I felt confused about why Martha would react negatively to collective affection and community rituals, so we talked about it. At one point, I mentioned to her that just the night before, I went to a birthday party for another dear friend, Mallory, which brimmed and overflowed with just this sort of intimate merry making.

Mallory's birthday party was the source of much satisfaction on Saturday (and into Sunday morning). I was excited for the opportunity that travel provided to connect with another friend, Didi (and I was and am grateful to her for being willing to have me along). We drove out together through some luxuriously thick nighttime fog, sharing an introductory conversation about basic desires for the future and intentional community. We arrived at the party (which had been going strong for a while by that point) just in time for taking group photos, and then the group shifted into easy conversation, delicious food, and general sharing of affection. With people like Mallory, affection is open and easy. There was a lot of cuddling and improv music, and I find it to be so satisfying, particularly to my (and dare I say our) needs for touch and community. At one point Mallory took my hand and said that she wanted to share a song with me in particular, as she had felt moved to share it with my brother before me; I am still curious about what prompted her request. Nonetheless, the song prompted me to ask the whole group about what it means to us to move beyond sorrow. It was a stimulating discussion that didn't last as long as I would have liked, but which still lives on in me. So, a beautiful and interesting gathering and celebration.

On our way home, I was delighted when Didi invited me to reflect on what particularly excited me from the party we had just left. It's so good to take time to share gratitude with other people! (Do I seem like I have a lot of gratitude? I have a lot of all the feelings. I sharply doubt that I am alone.) Some of what we savored I discussed above. Talking about Mallory in particular, we discussed how vulnerability so often benefits from being modeled, as she does so well. Didi perhaps instinctively modeled this by raising some of her own discomforts with the evening, which gave us both space to trust each other more in trying to understand our own discomfort as well as the people who had triggered those reactions.

Later, Didi asked me if I thought that Mallory was an example of (the practice of) unconditional love. I paused, wanting clarity around that deeply charged word: love. We had also been discussing forgiveness, and the two ideas were dancing around in my head. As I said then, for me love is (at least) two things. It is an emotion, and so like all emotions waxes and wanes and is prioritized alongside other emotions in our ongoing experience. And I believe that that word has another distinctly important meaning: love is a choice that we make to believe that other people have good intentions and reasons for their actions, and a choice to work to understand those actions. So empathy and forgiveness are present in there. It was a very rich discourse, which blossomed out of a rich shared experience.

So, moving back to the future of my discussion with Martha, I revealed to her that I had attended this birthday party the night before, and emphasized how much I valued the ritual and the expressions of affection from that celebration. In order to make the connection for her, I mentioned that the birthday party was for Mallory, who had convened a meeting at the end of January—which both Martha and I attended—to have a general discussion around fostering intentional community in our area. I noticed an increase in tension in Martha, and indeed she shared with me that she had felt uncomfortable around some of the ideas shared at that meeting and around the group hug that happened at the end of the meeting. As it turns out I, too, had felt bored at points during that meeting. It certainly would have been good if we had had space to share our discontent during the meeting. After some work to understand Martha's feelings, a few things emerged. I think that Martha is strongly needing practical and effective responses to real needs that we face in the world (e.g. environmental devastation, war, oppression), and to her it appears that affection parties tend to insulate themselves from these needs, becoming focused only on the needs that they meet. I am extremely glad to understand this better, as I think this provides a valuable challenge that we continuously work to collectively meet all of our needs. I think that Martha was also trying to express that she wants freedom to choose whether to participate in group activities without being excluded from the group itself. She wants our community to not oppress its members, even if that pressure would be for something like a group hug.

I wanted to share with you the places where I see the value of empathy, including some examples of what the practice of empathy can look like and what I have learned from it. We do not yet have consensus on what we want in an intentional community, but I believe that exercising empathy like this brings us closer to this consensus. It helps meet my need for understanding and for an atmosphere of trust among us, both of which can directly contribute to moving forward with the analytical work that remains. For these reasons, and others, these experiences were very satisyfing and a lot of fun.

This page was first published on 2015-12-11 15:38:00-04:00.

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